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Dawn of a Thousand Suns

Surviving Doom Town

By SAMIR S. PATEL

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Atomic-America-Mock-Home-Destruction 

 

On March 17, 1953, CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite reported live from News Nob, a knoll 10 miles from Yucca Flat in the Nevada Test Site. He and dozens more were broadcasting and reporting on Annie, a 16-kiloton shot in Operation Upshot-Knothole. The Annie test included structures familiar to any American: 50 cars and two two-story suburban homes, complete except for utilities and interior finishes, and filled with furniture, household items—and fully-dressed mannequins. In a famous series of images published widely following the test, the house closest to the blast, 3,500 feet away, was destroyed. The other, at 7,500 feet, was damaged but survived.

 

Nuclear-America-MannequinThis mock neighborhood was called “Doom Town,” and there are no surviving remains from it today. Portions of a second mock town, called “Survival Town,” which was subjected to the Apple-2 test from Operation Teapot in May 1955, still stand in the middle of an empty expanse of Yucca Flat. There are three bungalows and a pair of two-story houses. They are all that remain of Survival Town, which, when it was built, was equipped with utilities, industrial buildings, a radio station, and a propane tank farm. Cars and fire engines were once parked on the streets. The houses were furnished, their pantries stocked, and they were populated by 70 clothed mannequins. Following the explosion, the town lost power but not gas or telephone service. Its imaginary residents didn’t fare so well. “Dummies lay dead and dying in basements, living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms,” a newspaper reported. “A mannequin tot…was blown out of bed and showered with needle-sharp glass fragments.”

 

Nuclear-America-Home-Yucca-FlatIn the two standing houses of Survival Town, which Colleen Beck and her team at the Desert Research Institute have examined and documented, the mannequins and most of the furniture are gone. A table and some shelving provide a hint of what these houses once looked like—and why they fascinated the public so. The mannequins, it is rumored, were displayed at Nevada J.C. Penney stores. “There’s a J.C. Penney page—it must be from this test—that shows mannequins before and after,” Beck says. “You have this ‘before’ picture of the dressed mannequin, and afterwards sometimes an arm’s gone, or whatever. But the J.C. Penney clothes survive fine.”

 

Going Underground

By SAMIR S. PATEL

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Nuclear-America-Sedan-CraterThe vast majority of nuclear tests at the Nevada Test Site never formed mushroom clouds. They were conducted underground—828 tests over 35 years—and these too left material for archaeologist Colleen Beck and her team at the Desert Research Institute (DRI) to study. Yucca Flat, where the largest number of nuclear detonations at the Test Site took place, is pockmarked with craters. Underground nuclear explosions vaporize surrounding rock and create a cavity that may then collapse, leaving a feature such as Bilby Crater. Eighty feet deep and a third of a mile across, the crater was created by a 1963 explosion in Operation Niblick. Most of the underground tests were related specifically to weapons development and the impact of nuclear explosions on military hardware.

 

The Test Site’s most famous crater, Sedan, 1,280 feet wide and 320 feet deep, was formed in 1962 by a 104-kiloton explosion in Operation Storax. Unlike Bilby, this detonation was not meant to stay underground; it was specifically designed to create a massive crater. It was the largest explosion in what is known as the Plowshare Program (30 nuclear tests across 11 operations), which examined the potential for using nuclear devices in excavation (for canals, harbors, railroad cuts, and other engineering projects), chemical manufacture, prospecting, and the extraction of natural gas from geological formations. Sedan was intended to demonstrate the feasibility of using nuclear bombs to excavate a new Panama Canal. However, public concern about the use of nuclear devices for such projects, along with other factors, led to Plowshare’s quiet end in the mid-1970s.

 

Nuclear-America-TunnelDeep underground tests, even those that didn’t leave craters like Bilby, left other features for the DRI to document. Some underground test sites have tunnel complexes through which weapons and instruments were moved into place. The DRI has examined some of these tunnel complexes in the Rainier Mesa area, where tunnels had been bored horizontally into the rock. Access to the miles of tunnels, some of which were used for multiple tests, is prohibited, but outside there are portal areas, vent holes, muck piles, and rail lines, all of which yield their own historical information. “We knew nothing about how a tunnel test worked, and most people still don’t,” says Beck. From evidence collected outside the tunnels, DRI researchers have already discovered much about how the tunnel networks were excavated and how they grew increasingly complex over time.

Peace Camp

By SAMIR S. PATEL

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Nuclear-America-Peace-CampThe nuclear-testing-related historical remains of the Nevada Test Site don’t end at the site’s borders. Beginning in the 1970s, a coalition of protesters established a permanent outpost on 600 acres of adjacent federal land. People who lived east of the Test Site (“downwinders”), peace activists, devout Christians, and Western Shoshone Indians (who claim the land under an 1863 treaty) made up a significant portion of the protest community. In the 1980s, it became officially known as Peace Camp. It had no water and only Joshua trees for shade, yet it drew together members of 200 different organizations. One event there hosted 8,000 people.

 

Colleen Beck of the Desert Research Institute (DRI) noticed the still-active protesters during her early years at the Test Site. “I have to admit there was a lot of curiosity about what these people do over there in the camp,” she says. She didn’t act on that curiosity until she saw a backhoe digging on Peace Camp land. “I began phoning and found out that they were looking at turning the area into a gravel pit. I realized there was a good chance it was going to be destroyed,” and with it, a significant part of the Test Site’s history. Beck secured a grant to document Peace Camp in 2002. While some protesters were suspicious of the early DRI efforts there, the Western Shoshone were supportive.

 

Beck and her colleagues have documented many features associated with the protest community, such as paths, campsites, sweat lodges, hearths, and stone cairns used as trail markers. Residents had covered a highway underpass in graffiti, and used stones to create “geoglyphs,” or large designs expressing political and spiritual beliefs. One depicts an eight-petaled flower with white rocks forming a triangle in the center. Down a trail from there, some rocks spell out “TTW,” a reference to Terry Tempest Williams, a downwinder from Utah who chronicled her family’s cancer history. The side of a hillock sports an enormous peace sign. With Beck’s documentation, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which owns the site, and the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office have determined that Peace Camp is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

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